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Theatre Review: NKU's New Season Has Terrific Start with "Grapes of Wrath"

Northern Kentucky University has a terrific start to its theater season with John Steinbeck’s tragic The Grapes of Wrath, continuing through Oct. 9. The brilliant adaptation by Frank Galati is raised from page to stage with a wonderful sense of theatre by director Corrie Danieley.

Applause all around, starting with the cast of 30-plus students, who inhabit characters large and small in this epic story of the Joads, Okies whose sharecropping land is destroyed by the Dust Bowl and head west to the promised land of California.

‘Joad’ is not so far from biblical ‘Job’ and the Joads’ trials are many as they pile three generations of family onto a decrepit truck for an almost-2,000 mile journey about family, suffering, sacrifice, and the will to survive.

There are powerful chords that strike familiar tones of today. This is an engrossing reminder of the migration of thousands of American refugees, not caught in a war, but certainly trapped by the cutting off from opportunities by the Great Depression, starvation, even by a government blind to the environmental disaster – until clouds of dust rained down on Washington, D.C.

“Maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of,” muses Casy (Trey Paris), the ex-preacher who joins the Joads. If only. His beautiful thought is met by greed and prejudice and too many people who find other men’s lives expendable.

Family is at the center of The Grapes of Wrath, that begins with a dozen family members, too many of whom slowly fall away. Danieley and her cast make it easy to sort out ages and relationships, not so easy when the cast is all the same young age.

The Joad family ensemble anchors the play and all the performances are strong. Stand-outs include Christine Tully as the family matriarch Ma Joad makes you feel her heart shattering with each new loss; Caleb Farley as son Tom, the ex-con who discovers himself on the road; and Jessica Stafford as his pregnant, self-involved sister.  

The design team (scenic designer Ryan Howell, costumer Ronnie Chamberlain, lighting by Terry Powell, and sound by Kevin Havlin) put us in the brown, lifeless environment of the play from the first moment, then take us cross-country on a trip that includes a welcome dive into the Colorado River and an impressive rain storm.

A ‘hobo band’ deepens the emotional resonance as they pass through, singing songs of despair, hope, and occasional irony ("Jesus Is My Savior" to the tune of "Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby".) The musicians are led by Andy Burns (guitar) with Alena Firlie (fiddle), Alex Steele (harmonica), Xander Wells (banjo/guitar), and Justin Woolums (mandolin.) Farley joins them on spoons for a number at a rare social evening.

Danieley has a clear vision that she executes beautifully to give the audience a deeply satisfying night of theatre.

The Grapes of Wrath, through Oct. 9. Northern Kentucky University, Corbett Theatre. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $14, senior citizens $11, students $8. 859-572-5464 and here.

Review by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts
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